I’ve always been obsessed with end-of-the-world scenarios, from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes to Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 novel, The Road. I’ve tried to intellectualize my lifelong fascination, even teaching courses on Apocalyptic Literature. But no matter how many fancy words I use in my courses (“a posteriori apocalypticism,” “stigmatized knowledge,” “escalation ladder”), I cannot fully explain why I am drawn to these bleak tales of catastrophe and suffering.
Just yesterday I realized that my obsession with the apocalypse extends beyond literature and film into the realm of music. In fact, I can clearly recall specific periods in my life and the apocalyptic song that was on my life’s soundtrack at the time. Not counting REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — a predictable contender on any doomsday playlist — here are the songs on my Armageddon song list:
- In the early nineties it was “The Road to Hell” from Chris Rea’s Road to Hell
- Later in the nineties it was Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” from the album of the same name (“It’s lonely here / there’s no one left to torture”)
- In the days and weeks and months after 9/11 it was “The Dead Flag Blues” from Godspeed You! Black Emperor!’s f#a#∞ (“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine / and the machine is bleeding to death”)
- And now, the song that prompted this reflection, what I’ve been listening to obsessively, is “Rooks” from Shearwater’s Rook
With the song’s haunting arpeggios and singer Jonathan Meiburg’s resonant falsetto, “Rooks” is at once unnerving and beautiful. The lyrics suggests that the End draws nigh, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Or rather, there’s nothing we want to do about it.
It not so much apathy we seek in the face of the disaster, but obliviousness: “The ambulance men said there’s nowhere to flee for your life / so we stayed inside / and we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed”
Listen to “Rooks” by Shearwater: